On my favorite radio station back then, the songs told stories about every emotion that life could elicit. I knew just about every word of every song. Music has the unique ability to arouse introspection, and it offered me some stability in those turbulent years. If that’s not a kind of mentorship, I don’t know what is.
I’m very excited to feature my old classmate, Peter Downing. With this post, Peter reminds me how important our music teacher Pip Moss was, and how grateful I still am for his guidance and education.
— Dawn Carroll, OMSF Executive Director
I clicked on two video links: “Musician arrested for singing in subway” and “BBC Music – God Only Knows.” The second video is a montage of pop artists singing The Beach Boys’ masterpiece,“God only Knows.” An eighty-piece orchestra backs twenty-seven hugely famous and talented singers, who take turns singing one line of Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s classic love song each. Brian himself is in the video. By the time it got around to Dave Grohl, however, the meaning of the song had changed.
I was primed by the video of that brave New York City subway musician being wrongfully arrested for plying his trade. I’ve been a busker, you see—not out of ﬁscal necessity but rather out of spiritual need. Holding court in The Pit, in Harvard Square, with my old band, The Peasants, is a cherished memory. For me, it was the only outlet that beat the skull-busting rush of shooting cocaine.
Watching the young man in the first video being taken away in handcuffs—for what? For being the most alive one can be? It affected me. It hurt my soul.
I no longer imagined the musicians singing “God only knows” to a loved one; instead, the song become a paean to music itself. I didn’t see Elton John the mega star. I saw the awkward little boy, the target of ridicule, then a tortured artist, finding solace in creativity, now paying tribute to the thing that saved him.
Not every musician is “tortured,” obviously. But there is a certain madness required in mastering an instrument. It takes hundreds of hours alone in room, repeating the same work over and over with single-minded focus. God only knows what Brian Wilson and this distinguished band of merry misﬁts would be without music as an outlet.
Without it, I know, I’d be incarcerated or interred.
My story is a familiar one: alcoholism, broken home, latchkey kid. I was a good reader, but most of the other subjects confounded me. I couldn’t seem to pay enough attention.
Enter a young, long-haired, energetic, and very knowledgeable music teacher named Pip Moss. He had soft shoes, John Lennon glasses, and a corduroy blazer. Despite the hip style, Pip was the son of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first violinist and Concert Master. His intention, according to my classmate Warren, was to turn kids on to classical pieces in his ﬁrst year teaching the class “Music Listening.” But the kids rebelled.“We want rock,” they demanded. And Pip—maybe realizing the futility of his campaign—turned on a dime. He got a Fender Stratocaster and some Hendrix records, and by the time my class showed up the following year he had whole new curriculum.
He led off with Cream. My older sister liked the band so I already knew them. I was able to answer some questions intelligently. Pip took notice. During a quiz he played an obscure track. It was our job to identify the musician.
I knew instantly, raised my hand, and said, “It’s Cream.”
Pip smiled broadly and said, “Correct! How did you know?”
“Clapton’s voice.”I said.”
“Mmm. Good ear,” he said, “except it’s actually Jack Bruce who’s singing.”
It was an imperfect victory (something I’d have to get used to) but a victory nonetheless. I was suddenly engaged, scored well on quizzes, and in no time I was even teaching my classmates guitar. It was a sea-change.
Pip’s support may have been a small gesture, but it grew exponentially, the way a tiny adjustment at the start of a tee shot becomes a quantum leap three hundred yards down the fairway. A metric expansion of space began that day, and forty years later his words are still helping me as I strive to be more patient, kind, and generous. Where would I be without him as a mentor? God only knows.
Peter Downing graduated from Tufts University. He is a musician, father, and Managing Partner of Cerberus Life Management, an addiction recovery services firm.